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Company Officer Leadership: Principles of Effective Organizational Structures

Most if not all fire departments around the globe operate in a quasi-military fashion: top down leadership, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities of subordinate officers.

While the organization of departments generally varies depending on community size and the population served, who’s in charge of day-to-day operations is never in doubt.

Likewise, while the size of departments varies from state to state and county to county, the organizational model is generally the same. Whether your organization is commanded by a sworn fire chief or a shift captain, organizational principles remain constant.

In Management in the Fire Service, Harry Carter PhD identifies four categories of organizational principles underlying effective organizational structures: division of work, coordination, lines of authority and unity of command.

Division of Work

Carter identifies this principle as the most basic; it defines the relationships among the units and their individual members. This principle ensures a fair distribution of tasks needing to be accomplished whether they are on the fire ground or in the fire station.


As a department grows in size and complexity, so too does the need for internal coordination amongst personnel and stations. Coordination in this case goes hand in hand with chain of command no matter the size of the organization.

The chain of command is vital to the health and welfare of the organization and should never become a chain of convenience, where several links in the chain of command are skipped at the leisure and convenience of a leader within the organization. This leads to mistrust and animosity amongst subordinates.

Lines of Authority

Lines of authority deal with assigned tasks and the amount of authority and responsibility the individual has in carrying out those tasks.

Unity of Command

This principle is known to most in the fire service and relates to subordinates receiving orders from one supervisor, resulting in a more efficient performance of tasks.

Performance Metrics

Another administrative process that is garnering more and more recognition in the fire service is performance metrics. These measure an organization’s activity and performance along defined and established markers and can be quantitative or qualitative in their results.

Performance data can be along operational lines related to fire suppression, EMS, hazmat operations and fire prevention activities. Or it can be spread out to individual company tasks, such as hydrant inspections, community risk reduction and ROSC (return of spontaneous circulation) in cardiac-arrest patients.

Performance metrics should be calculated to identify gaps in service delivery on an ongoing basis. They can then help you analyze past performance, establish next performance objectives and examine overall performance strategies.

Although the size and complexity of the administration may vary across organizations, the processes those in administrative positions must adhere to should be clearly defined, linear in scope and practice, and understood by all involved for a more dynamic and fluid operation.

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